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SUSPENDED BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL, OUR ITALIAN EXPERIENCE AMID U.S. TERROR:

BY LUCIA MAURO

Time can play strange tricks on your mind. And time, with its excruciating stretches or brutal swiftness, seems as though it has the power to dangle mortals over a glowering precipice of fate. It is also a state of being my husband Joe and I became acutely conscious of during the final week of our recent trip to Italy.

On September 11, the world was forever changed when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – plunging the United States into a futile-frozen sort of horror, like a collective scene from "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Yet we watched this nightmare unfold from the active volcanic island of Stromboli, which is part of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. And we began to question all logic, the law of averages and the alarming parallels between our smoldering surroundings and the smoke-filled carnage of New York City, Washington, D.C., and the battered American psyche.

As the days progressed, we tried to process the magnitude of this tragedy from afar and wondered how soon U.S. airports would re-open to international flights – not to mention our sudden apprehension about flying and the conundrum of wanting to be with loved ones in the United States while pondering whether or not we might be "safer" in Italy, unsure of what the word "safe" meant anymore. But during these fragile and uncertain days, we encountered a magnificent outpouring of compassion and support from the Italians and travelers we met from England and Germany.

In an odd way, we seemed suspended between heaven and hell – uplifted by the pro-American sentiment on the fairly isolated Aeolian Islands yet devastated by this mortal blow to modern civilization. Our physical environment during that cataclysmic day mirrored those extremes.

I would like to share our experiences, including a necessary idyllic moment, prior to and shortly after learning of the September 11 attacks. These include fortifying memories of the Italian people reaching out and empathizing with us, as well as some very dear friends showering us with a warm protective energy and seeing that we got home safely.

Joe and I arrived by ferry on the island of Lipari on September 10. The next day, we planned to take a massive excursion covering the scenic "blue-and-white," Greek-inspired island of Panarea. It would culminate with a visit to Stromboli, whose volcano of the same name inspired director Roberto Rossellini to film his classic 1949 political commentary, "Stromboli," amid the island’s real and figurative desolation. I eagerly welcomed the severe contrasts.

The waters were calm and the sun gleaming as our boat – filled entirely with Italian tourists -- pulled out of Lipari’s pristine, movie set-like port at 10 in the morning. We were constantly reminded of the durability and immovability of nature – rocks as old as time itself jutted from the green-blue waters and pointed toward the sprawling volcano, with its fiercely etched crevices, wrapped in a perpetual gray haze.

We arrived on Panarea, next to the uninhabited craggy island of Basiluzzo, around noon and had a good four hours to explore the dainty white-washed buildings, the abandoned lemon-yellow Church of San Pietro, and a Bronze Age archaeological park consisting of stones placed in mysterious circular formations. The island owes its name to the characteristics of the terrain – panaria, which means unconnected. Joe and I didn’t have a care in the world this afternoon. We were happy to be cut off, for a brief time, from our ever-frenetic urban lives. Little did we know how excruciatingly disconnected – and helpless -- we would feel only a few hours later.

A sweet little gray cat followed us all the way to the somewhat secluded Ristorante da Paolino, whose beaming signora directed us with a sweep of her arm toward a table on a chalk-white terrace facing Stromboli – framed in purple bougainvillea -- head on. Every few minutes, the volcano would casually blow round smoke rings into the air like a heftier version of Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking Caterpillar. The signora was peeling a cantaloupe and passing around servings to her family at a long rectangular table.

For most of the two hours we spent there dining on eggplant-ricotta pasta and pesce spada, only a few more tables filled up -- making us feel like we were having lunch at the ends of the earth. The husky and soft-spoken owner, the ironically named Paolino himself, proudly presented us with complimentary glasses of the Aeolian Islands’ famous "malvasia" dessert wine into which we dipped tiny crescent-shaped cookies.

I mention this to paint a picture of an afternoon of such grace and gentle beauty contrasted, in retrospect, with the sheer horror of the World Trade Center disaster. Taking into account the six-hour time difference, our lunch in Panarea paralleled the attacks in New York City. For days, even weeks, I obsessively played that idyllic afternoon over and over in my mind. I still suffer unbearable guilt over our quiet pleasure at a time of such unspeakable pain.

That same gray cat followed us all the way to the port. We boarded the boat and slowly crawled toward Stromboli, which truly seemed as if it could swallow us up. The second we disembarked, a chill ran down my spine. Stromboli is an indescribably creepy island -– even its configuration is strange.

Visitors follow one main deserted road that wraps partially around the sea and faces the lonely Gothic island of Strombolicchio topped with a lighthouse. A quick glance behind, and one realizes that the volcano nearly blots out the sun. One eternally feels its eerie and knowing gaze. I remember recoiling in horror then breaking into tears at the sight of a dead bird, which looked like a cross between a pigeon and a dove, on the road.

The town itself is located in an elevated cluster, whose central landmark is the Church of San Vincenzo. Joe and I kept heading for its rounded campanile, only to find ourselves heading into a black void much closer to Stromboli than we cared to be. We had already taken a pass on a strenuous walking excursion to the top of the crater. A few people were scattered on the black-sand beaches, giving the impression that they were sunbathing in hell.

Lava and calcified rocks loomed at every turn of this outer cobblestone path; and the smell of smoldering ash tingled and burned our throats. By the time we found ourselves in a dense cornfield, we decided to back track. Another pigeon-dove circled above our heads and screeched with such anguish that I believed it was looking for its lost mate. Stromboli and this bizarrely deserted road made me ill at ease. I imagined the scene in "Stromboli" when Ingrid Bergman’s character gets lost in the island’s maze-like roads – unable to escape the Old World strictures of this ancient fishing village.

We finally found a narrow staircase that led into a winding, cactus-and-caper-clogged road toward the main part of town – and people! We passed the cranberry-painted home, where Rossellini and Bergman stayed during the filming of "Stromboli." I stared in disbelief at a plaque celebrating the fact that this was the house where the pair had "their love affair." Just before we reached the church, a black cat with piercing green eyes barred its teeth at us and blocked our path – the only Halloween-scary feline we encountered in a country whose cat population almost outnumbers its human population.

These disturbing details are etched in my brain. I then stared up at the bulbous dome of the 18th century Church of San Vincenzo and took in the relaxed diversions of elderly men sitting on benches and boys kicking around a soccer ball at the adjoining piazza that opened onto the ocean. Dusk was quickly falling. Joe decided to gaze at the sea from this dramatic promontory, while I softly slipped inside the toned-down rococo church.

I was immediately struck by the hand-painted detail of the statues and their richly embroidered vestments. All had agonized, morose expressions. A statue of the Virgin Mary wore an electric halo, whose bulbs spelled out "Io sono la concezione immacolata" ("I am the Immaculate Conception"). Another showed a mournful Madonna in a black shroud; yet another consisted of a priest and nun fervently clutching rosaries at the foot of the Cross.

Just as I was contemplating the excessive degree of anguish in these statues’ faces, Joe walked into the church ashen-faced. "I think the World Trade Center was bombed," Joe said with a shocked expression. "Come with me. There’s a TV around the corner."

We rushed out and found a large group of Italians huddled around a tiny television set in a souvenir shop. All I could see was the black smoke from the towers and a banner announcing, "America Under Attack." Joe and I nearly passed out. I was so nervous, I suddenly couldn’t understand what the announcer was saying. It took some time for us to realize the truly brutal nature of these attacks.

Then we heard that the Pentagon was hit and another plane crashed in Pennsylvania and imagined our entire country being invaded while we watched from the foot of an active volcano. To make matters worse, we could not get through on our cell phone to the United States. Joe and I sat on the curb stunned at first; then we began to cry. A few minutes later, a Canadian friend of ours who lives in Switzerland called us, and we grieved together on our cell phone.

We couldn’t even pick ourselves up to get to the pier – even as darkness rapidly descended. Joe and I walked in a daze down the winding path, and the Italians – who acknowledged us with tender expressions – walked alongside us in a somber, zombie-like state, too. We felt a profound emptiness inside; our world view grew grimmer with each heavy step. The silence was both crushing and reassuring.

Every day I re-trace our footsteps up that road leading to the Church of San Vincenzo – the dividing point between my life of uninhibited dreams and the eternal loss of inner security the second I watched those towers fall on that small TV screen on Stromboli.

We re-boarded our boat at 8 p.m. and found ourselves surrounded by a lot of equally shell-shocked passengers. Joe and I nestled inside on a long bench; and the captain announced that we were going to dock for a while near Strombolicchio to watch the orange lava pouring out of Stromboli – the cruelest irony of the day! We really felt like civilization was coming to an end. And we caught only a glimpse of this brilliant miniature eruption before turning away in horror. Then the boat began to rock violently, and the winds kicked up. I thought we were going to perish on the spot.

The captain then warned of extremely rough water and reassured us that he would try to get us back to Lipari as soon as possible, but that it would not be any sooner than two-and-a-half hours. Within a half-hour, I felt ill and ran to the bathroom only to find a long line of equally seasick passengers. A group of young compassionate stewards passed around plastic bags, and Joe – who did not get seasick -- held my hand the entire time and put cold compresses on my forehead.

Needless to say, I got very sick and the stewards and everyone around us expressed their concern. One of the young sailors even admitted that he’s gotten seasick. Then we received a phone call from our dear friend Aldina from the Milan area. She wanted us to know that she and her husband Piero – both shocked and angered by the attacks -- would do everything they could to help us when we flew back to Milan. Joe and I smiled at each other, grateful for such compassionate and loyal friends.

When we returned close to 11 p.m. to Hotel Carasco in Lipari, where we did not have a TV in our room, we found the lobby packed with guests glued to the one big TV. There was a computer nearby, and I immediately started sending e-mails to friends and colleagues in the U.S., while Joe finally got through to our loved ones in Chicago by phone. Everyone in the lobby – mostly Italians -- that evening was sobbing and embracing each other. The solidarity of that evening will remain with me forever.

In another ironic twist, after heaving and crying my eyes out, I stepped out onto our balcony facing the ocean. In the distance, I could hear a radio playing Maureen McGovern’s "A Morning After," the theme song from the 1970’s disaster film, "The Poseidon Adventure." Our nation was now living its own disaster movie.

When we awoke the next morning, Joe and I desperately wanted to believe that September 11 was a nightmare. But the TV coverage and headlines in all the Italian newspapers constantly reminded us it was not. We canceled our plans for today and wandered around a surprisingly subdued Lipari.

We ultimately decided to stay close to the hotel, trying to absorb as much information as possible. At the pool, fellow tourists – both British and German – expressed their heartfelt sympathies. And Joe and I contemplated our situation – comparing our plight to Rick’s in "Casablanca" – and seriously talked about alternatives if the U.S. borders were closed indefinitely. Our day became a surreal blur of what if’s and Plan Bs.

Joe and I left Lipari earlier than anticipated in order to catch a hydrofoil to Palermo before the waters turned rough in the afternoon. The following day, we stuck with our original schedule and flew from Palermo to Milan but, of course, our connection to Chicago no longer existed. We spent a day with the Renna family – long-time friends who own an ever-expanding, American-style Self-Service restaurant not far from Palermo’s port.

The gregarious Mario Renna and his intensely inquisitive 12-year-old son, Davide (limping around on crutches after breaking his foot playing soccer), escorted us to the restaurant’s office, where we logged onto a computer and read the latest news on-line. We couldn’t help but notice a poster of the Statue of Liberty, with Coke cans for breasts, hanging on the wall. Mario is a die-hard America-phile, yet he’s never been to America. Nevertheless, he felt like his own country had been attacked.

He suggested that we stay as long as we want at his home in Altavilla Milicia. But we thought it would be best to get to Milan as scheduled in order to be closer to an international airport. As the lunch crowds poured in, Davide asked us a million questions about how far away we lived from the World Trade Center and what we thought was going to happen to the country. He brought us a heaping plate of French fries and Cokes. Meanwhile, Mario’s wife Giovanna and various cousins and friends approached us gently and paid their respects – as if we were the immediate family at a wake where mourners were lamenting the sudden loss of America’s strong sense of indestructibility.

We stayed at Renna Self-Service all afternoon – joining the Renna’s for lunch and talking with the sensitive staff as they cleaned up. Then Mario, accompanied by Davide, drove us to the airport, where we inquired about flight information at the Alitalia counter. A distinguished older gentleman was visibly saddened by the tragedy and gave me an 800 number to call in Italy for news on airport openings. Then Mario dropped us off at a lovely hotel called Porto Rais, near Punta Rais airport. He wanted us to be in scenic environs. We remained glued to the TV and our cell phone until dinner time.

This was such a beautiful hotel, decorated with Moorish vases and paintings of the "Orlando Furioso" epics from the Charlemagne era. There was even a gold-painted carriage in the lobby. Our large room, complete with a balcony, faced both the Mediterranean Sea and the autostrada.

The hotel’s restaurant was nestled between palm trees on a candle-lit patio along the ocean. Here we really did feel like Rick in "Casablanca." Our cordial waiter in a crisp white tuxedo poured out his grief over the U.S. events and made sure every aspect of our dinner of spaghetti alla Norma and bistecca alla Palermitana was perfect. He then told us that a group of Alitalia pilots had just arrived and introduced us. One of the white-haired pilots shook our hands and nearly burst into tears. He told us to be patient and, hopefully, the airports would re-open within the next few days.

And so the pattern continued. The moment anyone learned we were American, a litany of sympathy and support followed. The next morning, we flew from Palermo to Milan’s Malpensa Airport – and the entire Romano family (whom we met four years ago through Mario Renna) made sure we were booked in a hotel near their home in the Lombardian town of Parabiago. This was not such an easy task, considering that all the hotels at the airport were full and the Romano’s live next to Monza, where the famous Grand Prix racing event was being held that weekend.

Marcello, the energetic brother of our artist-friend Piero, picked us up from Malpensa in a downpour. That evening, we enjoyed a peaceful dinner with Piero, Aldina and their 18-year-old son Andrea in their intimate, well-appointed apartment. We felt like we were in a cocoon, where nothing could harm us. They also saw to it that we got on-line and checked the news and our e-mails. No matter how long we would have to stay here, they were adamant about making the experience comfortable and peaceful.

We consistently called Alitalia’s toll-free number, and most of the time an agent answered promptly and tried to be as helpful as possible, despite being in limbo about the U.S. airport situation. Joe and I spent most of Saturday with the deeply sensitive Piero. We snacked on green-olive focaccia and sipped cappuccino at a table across from a panino stand at a park in the nearby town of Legnano. We were surrounded by merchants selling purses, sweaters and produce under white tents. A few feet away stood an enchanting park with a turtle pond and a 13th century castle – under partial scaffolding -- built by Frederick Barbarossa. Under stupendously sunny skies, we discussed politics, and Piero shared his very touching life story with us.

We then met Aldina, who worked part of the day at a call center in a brand-new shopping mall, and returned to Legnano, where she bought fresh porcini mushrooms for risotto in case we were still "stranded" here on Sunday. Another special moment occurred when we visited Piero’s stoically hopeful mother Rosalia, his brother Marcello and Marcello’s two little sons, Matteo and Giovanni. We sat around their cozy kitchen table and shared more of our thoughts on the terrorist attacks – feeling like all this discussion brought about a catharsis for us.

That evening, Piero and Aldina took us out to dinner in the medieval, Swiss-looking town of Morimondo. Aldina pointed out the area’s well-known arborio rice patties for risotto. We arrived at this town, which was contained within about two square blocks and is closed to traffic, at dusk. It consists of heavy stone archways and cobblestone streets leading to a church, a fortress and a farm, which produces the food for Trattoria del Priore. Piero is friends with the spirited rotund owner, Angelo, forever trailed by his plump Dachshund.

The talk of politics, a world war and a few rare laughs about Angelo’s passion for Dachshunds accompanied our rustic meat-heavy meal at this large, embracing restaurant with its wood-burning ovens and copper-pot-lined walls.

When we returned to our hotel at midnight, we called Alitalia again. I was shocked when the agent told us that the U.S. airports would most likely open to international flights that morning. She recommended that, because she could not make a reservation over the telephone, we arrive at Malpensa around 4 a.m. and get in line. Our chances of being put on a waiting list or even getting on a flight would be better if we showed up in person. I immediately called the Romano’s, and Piero told us he would meet at the hotel at 3:30 a.m. I think we all got barely an hour’s sleep.

We arrived at Malpensa Airport to finds thousands of people with the same idea. So we stood in line and waited five hours – with Piero at our side – until we were able to speak to an Alitalia ticket agent. She informed us that the flight to Chicago was over-booked by 20 passengers but that she would put us on a waiting list. If we didn’t get on that flight, she could not book us until the end of the month and recommended that we think about switching carriers and getting anywhere in the United States. All carriers were honoring each other’s tickets.

We then stood in another long line for the "waiting-list" passengers. Another ticket agent said he would call our name if space became available. The situation looked dire, considering the swarms of passengers crowding around that ticket counter. On every TV, we saw the same horrific footage and smoldering rubble of the Twin Towers until our eyes and hearts burned with uncontrollable grief. Piero said he would stay with us until we figured out a way to get home.

Then a miracle happened. The agent called our names at the last second. Joe and I were literally the last two people to board that plane. We found out that so much space opened up because Italian citizens who had planned to travel to the U.S. for vacations were willing to give their seats to Americans anxious to get home.

Everything still felt like a dream as we ran to our faraway gate in what seemed like slow motion. The entire plane cheered and applauded when we landed safely at O’Hare Airport; then Joe and I entered a city draped in American flags.

Time continues to pass, but I still have flashbacks of that fateful day on Stromboli when, like the characters in the film "Stromboli," we were poised between heaven and hell and forced to contemplate our place in the universe. I’m still questioning whether time is really capable of healing all wounds. But I do know that our experience in Italy following one of the worst disasters of our age renewed our faith in the kindness and generosity of humanity.•

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